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Divorce: American Style

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a divorce revolution swept the nation. For the first time, state legislation—pioneered by California—permitted a divorce to be obtained unilaterally. Eventually, two-thirds of the United States followed suit, bringing about a mass rethinking and restructuring of the American family.

Divorce rates doubled. Families splintered. Only a few states—including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—retained tough barriers to the dissolution of marriage: specified grounds and a substantial burden of proof. Elsewhere, those barriers were dismantled.

Before this social revolution, a wedding was seen as entrée to a fixed, stable, and permanent set of social and economic circumstances. “Women entered marriage expecting it to define their entire lives,” says Kristin Mammen, an assistant professor of economics who graduated from Columbia, holds a PhD from Princeton, and has done extensive research on the economic well-being of women and children. At Barnard, Mammen teaches courses on statistics and the economics of gender, and advises upperclass students on their senior thesis. She continues, “The increasing divorce rates between 1965 and 1975 changed these expectations. There was a strong sense of dislocation. Older housewives had expected never to work, and were especially hard-hit.”

But widespread divorce reform was never meant to create economic parity between men and women. The new legislation came into being because, prior to liberalization, perjury ran rampant in matrimonial hearings. In many instances, law firms hired women to pose with their clients (divorce-seeking husbands) for incriminating hotel-room photos, in order to furnish courts with supposed evidence of adultery. “Husbands lied, wives lied, and judges were complicit,” Mammen says.

Widespread dishonesty made a mockery of the court system, and liberalization was needed to restore integrity. The laws weren’t intended to numerically affect divorce rates at all. But legislators grossly underestimated what the public response would be. The divorce rate doubled from 1965 to 1975, and although the rate has declined slightly since 1980, it’s projected that 40 percent of today’s marriages will end in divorce.

For decades, scholars have studied divorce’s impact on women, children, and families. Today it is common wisdom that women’s financial resources decrease about 30 percent after divorce, whereas men’s increase about 10 percent. Less recognized is how this massive social revolution affected the attitudes and circumstances of those who were launching their careers when the divorce laws were changing—even if they weren’t themselves members of divorcing households.

In 2006, seeing that no one else had focused on the long-term effects of the divorce law liberalizatoin on those who were young adults in the late 1960s, Mammen set out to analyze the data and to discuss what the research revealed about contemporary society. “I’ve always been interested in how women’s economic well-being is affected by their biological and traditional roles in childrearing and homemaking,” she says.

Mammen isolated data for people who, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, were between 16 and 25 years old—the years when people traditionally enter the workforce. She compared the residents of the reform states to those in states that hadn’t changed their divorce laws.

She found that, as divorce rates climbed in the reform states, something fascinating happened among older teenagers and young adults. Her evidence suggests that around the time of the legislative change, young women in the reform states began entering the labor force in greater numbers. And today, those same women are more likely than other women to still be working. They also continue to earn more, and to be more financially secure.

Mammen says that even if a woman’s own marriage lasted, because that woman perceived an increase in the overall risk of divorce, she would likely adjust her family and career decisions. She might especially choose to spend less time at home and more time in the workforce, in order to protect herself in case her marriage did end. As a result, American women entered a new age of autonomy.

But with autonomy came tradeoffs. On average, wealthier people are thinner, eat better, and receive better medical care. Yet, while Mammen’s reform-state subjects—male and female—are by and large wealthier than their counterparts, they suffer from poorer health. The reason, Mammen speculates, is that when two people specialize—one in the labor market, the other in home production—both may be better off, health-wise. One person has a high-powered career, walks in the door and gets a hot dinner. The other can schedule doctor’s appointments and cook healthy meals. Both get more sleep. But Mammen believes that with more women entering the labor market, this division of labor diminishes, possibly explaining the negative health effects in her subjects. Especially in the past, there was little social support for women taking on the dual roles of breadwinner and homemaker. And even today, although men increasingly take part, many women struggle to fit these two full-time jobs into a 24-hour day.

When couples do divorce, Mammen says, the financial hit is “greatest for middle-class women and women in older marriages.” But, she adds, their “identities are not as tied to being married as they used to be, [and they] are better prepared to support themselves and their children.”

More recently, Mammen researched the impact of children’s gender on the probability of divorce and child support. “Previous research indicates that having boys in a marriage has a small but measurable affect in keeping marriages from ending,” she says. Mammen decided to go a step further and study the impact of a child’s gender on child-support payments. She found no impact, and last year published her first paper on those findings.

Mammen, who is herself happily married with two daughters, 17 and 10, and who rejoices in the rise of women’s independence, also waxes philosophical about the persistence of traditional roles amid immense social change: “There’s been a lot of progress for women. The gender wage gap has decreased. More women than men graduate from college these days,” she acknowledges. “But family responsibilities do appear to hold women back in earnings. Women with kids earn less than those without, while having children makes no difference to men’s wages.” She further notes the irony of women being the economic lifeline for children: “Often, the ultimate responsibility for kids is pushed onto the people who are least able to provide.”

-Jean Tang, illustration by Chris Silas Neal